Venus, Jupiter will beam brightly this month

December 1, 2013

The heavens convey planetary gifts this month: a vivacious Venus and a jammin’ Jupiter.

Effervescent in the truest sense, Venus’s appearance is as bright as it gets. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada estimates a negative 4.9 magnitude for the planet as it loiters in the south-southwest at dusk.

You can’t miss Venus, as it looks like someone pointing an LED flashlight at you. On Friday, the planet will reach “greatest illuminated extent,” according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Our neighboring planet, draped in sulfuric clouds, will be 37.8 million miles away, or about 3.4 light-minutes from Earth.

Throughout the month, you might notice that Venus, inching closer to the horizon, sets earlier in the western evening sky.

Jupiter rises in the northeastern sky rises around 7 p.m. early in December, providing prime-time entertainment from the Gemini constellation. It is easy to find in the urban light pollution, since it appears at negative 2.6 magnitude (very bright). This fat, gaseous planet rises around 6 p.m. toward the latter portion of the month.

Comet ISON, which astronomers had hoped would brighten our Northern Hemisphere skies, may not have escaped the sun’s wrath.

Prospects for the comet’s survival are slight, as it reached perihelion — the closest approach to the sun — on Thursday. Images taken from the European Space Agency and NASA satellite SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) on Friday showed a bright comet emerging from the sun’s glare, giving astronomers pause and hope. With further emergence Saturday, the comet had dimmed substantially, an indication that it may have broken apart.

Astronomers around the world will observe this object to provide confirmation of the comet’s viability in the coming days.

If Comet ISON survived, sky gazers may find the reconfigured body near the horizon in the east-southeastern morning sky. You’ll need binoculars Tuesday morning, and should look for it to the right of Mercury. Later in the week, it may be found to the lower left of Saturn, according to previous estimates from Mike Lewis of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club.

* * *

The waxing moon essentially will wash out most of the Geminid meteors on the peak night of Dec. 13-14. Lucky observers may see a few shooting stars late at night and in the morning hours.

Our beautiful autumn folds into the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21 at 12:11 p.m. Eastern time, according to the Naval Observatory. It’s the official start to astronomical winter, and soon we will start to see more daylight.

Down-to-Earth Events:

“Season of Light” — A holiday planetarium program about the coldest, darkest season that holds the warmest, brightest celebrations. David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 1:30 and 3 p.m., now through Dec. 22. $3 adults, $2 for children, seniors. friendsoftheplanetarium.org

●Dec. 2 — Winter’s sky develops in the “Stars Tonight” at the David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 7:30 p.m. $3 admission. friendsoftheplanetarium.org .

●Dec. 5 — “Comet ISON,” a talk by astronomer Dennis Bodewits at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Check out planets and stars afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse .

●Dec. 7 — “Oh, Swear Not by the Inconstant Sun,” a lecture by historian David DeVorkin. Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu .

●Dec. 8 — The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club offers an astronomy equipment show-and-tell at its regular meeting. Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University. 7 p.m. www.novac.com .

●Dec. 12 — “Sculpture on the Moon: Meet Artist Paul Van Hoeydonck,” a discussion between the artist and space historian Margaret Weitekamp. Moving Beyond Earth Gallery, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 1 p.m. airandspace.si.edu .

●Dec. 13-14 — “An Astronomer Looks for the Christmas Star” explores the natural phenomena that may be the basis for the Christmas Star. 6:30 p.m. each night. Hosted by the Friends of the Planetarium. David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. $7 adults; $5 members, seniors; $3 kids. friendsoftheplanetarium.org .

●Dec. 14 — “First Mission to Pluto: The Origins and Voyage of New Horizons,” a lecture by historian Michael Neufeld. Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu .

●Dec. 14 — “Water Vapor and Hydrocarbons on the Outer Planets,” a lecture by NASA astrophysicist Gordon Bjoraker, at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. capitalastronomers.org .

●Dec. 20 — “The Southern Skies: Astronomy in Chile,” a talk by astronomer Mia Bovill, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the heavens afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse .

●Dec. 21 — “The Day of the Sun’s Return: The Winter Solstice,” at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park. (Note: Special 5 p.m. start time.) www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet/ .

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at postskywatch@gmail.com.

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